Google (GOOG) products have worked their way more and more deeply into our daily lives, and the great utility they provide depends on massive trawls of data. A Guild staffer who recently relocated to Los Angeles from the east coast depends on Google Maps, and on Google acquisition Waze, to navigate southern California’s notoriously difficult traffic. Waze relies on real-time crowd-sourcing -- collecting information about users’ location and speed to route people away from congested streets and highways. And of course, that means that it’s watching you wherever you go.
This is the kind of data collection that has fueled some public criticism of Google’s reach, and it’s just a small example of how Google is pursuing its stated mission: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
With each new project Google starts -- each new step towards their goal of compiling the world’s information—there is a public outcry. That’s what happened when Google vehicles started rolling around the world’s cities collecting Street View data. But within a few years, it seems, consumers are happily using the products made possible by those data. We think the same pattern is likely to play out with Google’s new “moonshot” project—an attempt to gather unprecedented troves of data on the functioning of the human body.
Larry Page Addresses Concerns
At the end of June, Google held its annual developers’ conference, called “I/O” -- standing both for “input/output” in programmers’ jargon, and “innovation in the open.” Speaking to a New York Times reporter after his keynote address, CEO Larry Page addressed public fears of the size of Google’s data collection. He noted how public discontent with new data collection initiatives usually fades as people become familiar with the project and experience some of its benefits. He called out the collection of health-care data in particular:
“I’m so excited about the possibilities to improve things for people, my worry would be the opposite. We get so worried about these things that we don’t get the benefits… Right now we don’t data mine health care data. If we did we’d probably save 100,000 lives next year.”
Google’s New Moonshot: “Baseline”
A month after the I/O conference, Google unveiled its new moonshot project. We’ve written before about Google X, the incubator for Google’s most ambitious projects, run by Google co-founder Sergey Brin. This is the arm of Google responsible for the development of driverless cars, as well as the Loon project to provide broadband internet via high-altitude balloons. Earlier this year, Google X unveiled a project to produce a smart contact lens that would constantly monitor blood glucose levels for diabetics -- with Novartis recently inking a deal with Google to license that technology.
Now Google X is embarking aggressively on the path of health care data collection and crunching via the Baseline project.
What Is Baseline?
Baseline is being run from Google X’s Life Sciences division, headed by Dr. Andrew Conrad, a biosciences veteran with a PhD from UCLA who sold his revolutionary HIV-test startup to LabCorp (LH) in 2000. An iconoclast like many Google X staffers, he wears flip-flops to work and enthuses about how Google X brings together brilliant minds from widely divergent disciplines to solve the world’s problems.
Baseline is an ambitious effort to gather and analyze data about healthy human beings. The idea is that dysfunction can only be identified when good function is clearly understood -- hence the idea of a “baseline.”
Not tremendously exciting, you might think. Google would have an understanding of how a healthy human body works, and presumably that means that if you were monitoring your own health, you could compare to the baseline and know when something was awry. In short, Google might be able to tell you when to go to the doctor (although you would have some idea of that yourself).
But the implications are bigger. The Baseline project is essentially an effort to make a qualitative leap in the use of preventive care -- and could represent a fundamental change in health care delivery.
What Data Is Google Collecting?
The 175 initial volunteers -- rising to about 400 by the end of the year -- will give just about all the medical data that science knows how to collect. Blood and saliva collection, personal medical history, family genetic and medical history: all will go into the database.
In addition, each participant’s genome would be fully sequenced -- a development made possible by the dramatic decline in sequencing costs, from $100 million when the technology was first possible a decade ago to just $1000 now.
How These Data Will Transform Health Care Delivery
With the Baseline established, what will this kind of analysis be able to do?
Detailed analysis of lifestyle, genomics, and biochemical information will let people know, first of all, what health risks are especially high for them, and how they can mitigate those risks -- before any adverse health effects have begun to occur.
Further, constant monitoring will detect biochemical changes indicating an impending problem long before there are even any outward symptoms, let alone before you reach the conclusion that you need to visit a doctor.
The smart contact lens that has now been licensed by Novartis (NVS) shows where this data collection regime can go in the future -- into the world of wearables. So health care monitoring will be able to move toward constant real-time auditing and analysis. The wider the net is cast in terms of participants, the more valuable the information generated -- exactly the same as with all Google’s data gathering endeavors.
Of course, the data being gathered and crunched here are the most personal data anyone has, and readers will certainly already have started imagining how such data could be turned against them -- by insurance companies, for example. Thus Baseline is putting itself right in the middle of a long-running fight over health care data privacy.
The project itself is covered by the same regulations that govern clinical trials -- with a principal investigator (PI) running clinical operations and data collection. That PI will be independent of Google, and the study’s procedures will be examined by an independent institutional review board. Critically, all data that Google gets to crunch will be anonymized, with personal identifiers stripped out. Google may learn what genetic characteristics let people deal better with dietary fat -- but they won’t be able to tell study participants to eat better.
So for the Baseline study itself, no real privacy concerns. When it comes to wider implementation, though, that’s another story.
We think it is likely that as with all such “crowd-sourced” applications, consumers will eventually see the benefits of participation. Apps that follow traffic save time -- and users who experience the benefits gradually lose their resistance to carrying around a device that knows where they are (and how fast they’re driving) at all times.
The potential benefits of Google’s mapping of the human body and its functions are greater by an order of magnitude.
We believe that the public will eventually make peace with sharing their data when the benefits gradually become more visible.
What We Like About Google’s Audacity
What we like most about the vision expressed by Baseline and other Google X projects is the essential optimism it embodies. Google’s co-founders have consistently demonstrated the willingness to come at problems with a childlike openness and confidence that human ingenuity can create better outcomes for human life. In the case of Google X, they seem willing to stake a portion of Google’s prosaic success as an advertising medium on goals with no obvious and immediate financial payback for their company.
For now, our specific analysis of Google is focused on that prosaic bottom line, the shift from desktop computing, and the challenges of monetizing mobile traffic. But still, we think that Google’s vision is a lesson about what can be achieved by optimism that has the liberty to pursue its goals.
Investment implications: Stay aware of developments like these, and watch for established companies that are commercializing them effectively, as well as new entrants. Look at Google when the market corrects.
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